The Kardashians are perhaps best known as the family that’s “famous for being famous.” For years, that unwelcome tagline has followed the famous family around: a label, a curse, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The conventional trappings of talent-based stardom is a far cry from the Kardashians’ brand of fame — a billion dollar empire made up of shapewear, cosmetics, reality TV, tequila and a lot of followers on social media. Kardashian fame is acutely modern, the product of an era defined by the artificiality of social media feeds, the spectacle of sex and the ceaseless hunger of American materialism.
In the 16 years since an anonymously leaked sex tape and a subsequent reality series launched Kim Kardashian and her extended family to fame, the Kardashian-Jenner clan, with their uncanny ability to attract and maintain attention, have perfected the art of the personal brand. Through their series, their business ventures, their social media posts and a near-constant press cycle dedicated exclusively to them, they have commodified their very existence. Their very bodies have become icons of capitalistic success. They sell us lifestyles we can only dream of one day living. They sell us the promise of breathtaking beauty, of face-tuned sex appeal. They sell us them.
For the Kardashian brand, the body and capital gain have long been inextricably tied. Since the conception of their fame, the Kardashian family have demonstrated this kind of tension that at once centers the family unit and overt sexuality.
Their frequent espousal of contradicting attitudes surrounding these topics have allowed the family to both adhere to conservative Western values while simultaneously permitting their ability to self-commodify their sexuality and physical form. In this way, they equally conform to and transform the status quo, making way for the creation of a billion-dollar influencer market and a whole new kind of fame.
In 2014, Kim “broke the internet” with a cover shoot featuring a nude photo that went viral. In 2015, she released a book of selfies entitled “Selfish,” a coffee-table edition filled with nothing but photos taken of herself by herself. In 2018, Kim released a perfume bottle modeled from a cast of her naked torso. Sexuality is also featured prominently on their reality series. In a season one episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” Kim poses for a nude playboy shoot as her mother cheers her on. Many of the marketing campaigns released by Kardashian brands heavily feature the sisters’ bodies and likenesses, further equating their bodies with their wealth. They are businesswomen dealing in the business of their own identities and bodies, merchants of jealousy and desire.
They have long embraced their role as retailers of sex. In a 2016 essay, Kim wrote, “I encourage women to be open and honest about their sexuality, and to embrace their beauty and their bodies” just as she has.
In this way, the Kardashian’s are disruptors. Pop-culture icons of the girlboss feminism era, empowered, successful businesswomen who simultaneously maintain their dedication to the image of a close-knit, God-fearing family. A little contradictory, perhaps. But that’s who they are. They have risen to power as a women-led entity utilizing femininity and an overt embrace of empowered sexuality to profit massively in a male-dominated industry. If I squint hard enough, it almost feels feministic.
Kim, though, doesn’t think so. In direct contrast to her perceived sexual freedom and embrace of bodily autonomy, she has long refused to call herself a feminist. In 2016 she penned an essay that described her dislike of the feminist label, “being grouped or labeled can create separation between people who do (or don’t) fall into certain categories.” In 2022, she doubled down in an interview with Bari Weiss when she said she wouldn’t call herself a feminist because of that same dislike of labels.
In the same 2022 interview, Kim revealed that she liked the “taxes the Republicans want,” railed against cancel culture and shared that she had absolutely no regrets about working with Donald Trump while he was in the White House.
While the Kardashians make millions from their sexualities and autonomous bodies, they also perform a tightrope walk. One that balances a fine line between sexual freedom and the maintenance of a conservative, capitalistic status quo.
As much as the Kardashians have shifted our cultural perceptions of beauty from the waif-thin standards of the early-aughts to a more inclusive and voluptuous body that has, in turn, become a beauty standard of its own; as much as they have they have radically transformed the way women can monetize themselves in media spaces for profit, they have done so while conforming strictly to a rather conservative family-based value set.
A focus on family and motherhood is an all-encompassing topic within the Kardashian world. Despite the absence of traditionally formed family units (the majority of the Kardashian sisters have had children unmarried), the Kardashian family frequently points to their placed importance on more traditional models of femininity, particularly child-rearing and motherhood.
In “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” familial responsibility and motherhood are brought up consistently. Motherhood serves as the foundation of many relationships on the series and also as a driving narrative for many episodes. In a recent episode of their Hulu series “The Kardashians,” Kris suggests to a 26-year-old Kendall Jenner that her time to have children has come. Despite Kendall admitting she was “uncomfortable” and was not ready to have children, Kris still calls their doctor and asks about freezing Kendall’s eggs.
Family-centric messaging that highlights the importance of the family unit and the role of motherhood are included throughout the series.The season 13 premiere of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” begins with a dramatically scored montage of the entire Kardashian family holding hands over a dinner table in prayer, a visualization of a traditional Rockwellian family. Matriarch Kris is then heard in a voiceover, right before the start of the first episode: “At the end of the day, we have each other. That means everything,” says Kris. Family means literally “everything” to the Kardashian brand. So does sex. A push and pull that defines their effective, if strange, money-making model.
But what does this all mean, really? Why does it matter that the Kardashians make millions from the commodification of their bodies while maintaining right-leaning values?
In the wake of the Kardashian empire exists a new kind of labor.
This push and pull between Kardashian conformity and disruption and their consistent popularity within the cultural zeitgeist has resulted in a kind of transformation of the status quo online. The Kardashian family is one of a select group of socialites and reality stars that has trailblazed the concept of the influencer, a new form of online labor that has transformed the social media landscape. An influencer is an online personality whose fame is inextricably tied to the products they endorse, and does not require a particular “personal achievement” or talent to gain said fame.
This is the novel form of celebrity that can first be seen in the Kardashians’ rise to fame, which was not linked to a particular talent but rather to presenting a version of themselves that they would then commodify. The Kardashians have utilized this source of capital well before the rise of social media. From the very start of their series in 2006, the family used their likenesses to endorse products and their own ventures. The influencer utilizes the same tactics the Kardashians have for over a decade. Influencers use their images, their beauty and their sexuality, to endorse products to their followers that were gained through non-traditional means. Meanwhile, many still espouse messages of empowerment and entrepreneurship, much like the family.
Despite the transformative nature of this new influencer-based market, it remains exclusive. It upholds a narrow, highly idealized standard of beauty largely influenced by the Kardashians’ body-types and physical appearance. It remains westernized and largely white, even as many of the popularized beauty “trends” attempt to emulate the features of Black women who have historically been oppressed and ridiculed for such features. From the BBL to lip fillers, the Kardashian family has popularized cosmetic surgeries to achieve these features while Black women and girls continue to face discrimination for the bodies they were born with.
The Kardashians’ massive influence on our popular culture highlights the ways capitalism can extend into every aspect of our human existence, including our identities, our likenesses and our sexualities. They defined a new way of making money by shifting the culture just enough to strike their own gold, another addition to the long Western tradition of individualism, exclusion and co-option at the expense of the oppressed.
There remains nothing wrong with the co-existence of sexual freedom and motherhood. People who have children also have sex. Women can be businesswomen and sex symbols, caretakers and profit-driving machines. The issue remains, though, in the perpetual cycle of capitalism. In the ways profit-motivated fame excludes minorities, embraces materialism and co-opts sexual freedom and feministic ideals in the name of greed.
Maybe that infamous tagline, the one about the Kardashians being famous for everything but talent isn’t so true, after all. Maybe these contradicting values aren’t actually so contradictory. Maybe it all points to something else, a value set and a talent that rests on nothing else but a desire and an ability to profit.
Riley Burke still regularly streams “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” She believes even our guiltiest pleasures deserve a bit of critical analysis.
A version of this article appeared on pg. 14 of the March. 2, 2023 edition of the Daily Nexus.